Composer Beat Furrer: ‘We have become detached from nature’

On Friday 6 May 2022 Beat Furrer makes his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with his brand new Sechs Gesänge. He used texts from Sara Gallardo’s novel Eisejuaz about the fate of the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon: ‘Eisejuaz is forced to fell the trees that form the basis of his life’.

In the music of the Swiss-Austrian composer Beat Furrer (Schaffhausen, 1954), concepts such as melody, harmony and rhythm hardly seem to matter anymore. Yet with his fragmented sound universe, he achieves an intense emotional eloquence. During the Holland Festival in 2007, for example, he was highly praised for Fama, a ‘drama of listening’. In 2019, he received equally favourable reviews for his opera Violetter Schnee, in which five snowed-in people seem to be experiencing the downfall of the earth.

Beat Furrer (c) David Furrer

Colonialism leads to loss of identity

The score of Sechs Gesänge is also teeming with the seemingly incoherent emitted sounds of a twelve-member choir. The texts are taken from Eisejuaz, a novel published by the Argentine Sara Gallardo in 1968. ‘Her book was ground-breaking’, says Furrer enthusiastically in a video interview.

‘For the first time in history, an indigenous inhabitant of the Amazon region is given the opportunity to speak. The book is based on an interview with Eisejuaz, who goes by his Spanish name Lisandro Vega. He has to earn his living in a sawmill, where he fells the trees that make up his livelihood. It is a form of colonial violence that leads to a loss of identity.’

The idea for his composition arose a few years ago, when he read about the Dispute of Valladolid in 1550: ‘The Spaniards debated whether the original inhabitants of the conquered territories in the Americas were human beings. The Dominican bishop Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that they had no souls and therefore could be killed and plundered.’

Beat Furrer: ‘Colonialism robbed Eisejuaz of his identity. With my Sechs Gesänge I hope to give him back his original voice.’

His counterpart, Bartholomew de las Casas, stood up for them and pleaded for equal rights. I was immediately captivated and started reading more about this still topical subject. Like Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss about dying cultures. It was a real stroke of luck when I stumbled across Eisejuaz.’

Separated from nature

With its abundant word repetitions, the libretto of Sechs Gesänge has the air of a litany. ‘I built it from loose phrases, sentences and words from the novel. Eisejuaz is closely linked to nature; he does not see himself as a separate individual but as one with his environment. However, this connection has been lost. The singers represent the voices of messengers from his old world. They send Eisejuaz word from the trees, the animals, even the wind.’

‘Eisejuaz’ animism has nothing esoteric for me’, Furrer emphasises. ‘I see it as a tragic fact that we have become separated from nature. The decision to separate man from nature was already taken in Aristotle’s time. A fatal mistake. There is a very beautiful moment in the novel. Eisejuaz describes how a cloud slides in front of the sun: “She looks at me, I look at her, but she says nothing. She used to speak to me!” I find this heart-breaking.’

‘For me, it is essential to restore the connection between man and nature, as philosophers have been advocating since Romanticism, when the great industrialisation left its mark on the landscape. In the songs of Schubert and the paintings of Casper David Friedrich, nature is personalised.’

Furrer is convinced that the human voice has something physical, which the other can experience: ‘When I hear your voice or someone else’s, or an animal’s or whatever, I am physically connected to it. That is why I hesitated about the title piece. First I thought of Anrufungen (Invocations), because Eisejuaz has lost contact with the beings and entities from his old world, who keep calling to him.’

Messages from a lost world

The invocations of Eisejuaz and tidings of the messengers are interpreted by the singers: ‘My idea is that he hears their voices and we hear them with him. The orchestra absorbs them into the sound, like a resonator. Sometimes they get a lot of space, sometimes less. At times, the orchestra just produces a range of different sound colours, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, like the rustling of the wind. At other times the fabric is quite homogeneous, as if orchestra and singers together form one voice that shouts, screams or sings.’

Each part has a different character, though for example movements 1 and 4 contain the same texts: an enumeration of types of wood and calls such as ‘break my heart’, and ‘build your houses in my heart’. Musically, however, they are very different, says Furrer.

Beat Furrer: ‘Eisejuaz loses his animistic contact with the world around him. This is not at all esoteric, but tragic: it was a fatal mistake to detach ourselves from nature.’

‘The first movement has a slow, lingering pace, in which the high tenors and basses are constantly interrupted by an almost animal-like voice from the depths of the orchestra, with instruments such as double bassoon, baritone saxophone and tuba. In the fourth movement, the orchestra suggests a gust of wind with fast string movements, which constantly change in colour and intensity. Quasi-calling voices gradually emerge from these agile sounds.’

Human voice

These are often microtonal, with deviations from the regular intonation noted down to the smallest detail. Furrer: ‘In my harmonic system, sounds are constantly transforming. For example, one pure chord gradually changes into another via minute intervals, all derived from the overtone series.’

This makes his Sechs Gesänge seem a far cry from Zaín by Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553), which is also on the programme. Furrer: ‘Naturally, my work sounds different, but with me too the vocal element is central. Music from the Renaissance and early Baroque was an important source of inspiration because of its unprecedented vocal richness, which was later lost. A Wagner singer can neither perform my music nor that of Morales; his or her voice simply lacks the flexibility to do so.’

Art is essential

Furrer is pleased Morales is programmed alongside his music: ‘He lived at the time of that horrific conference, as did Francisco Guerrero and Thomas Luís de Victoria. While bishop De Sepúlveda argued that the colonised natives were not human, the greatest Spanish music ever was composed! This was in stark contrast to the cruel reality. But that is precisely the function of art: it reflects on the world around us.’

Furrer here refers to Russia’s war against Ukraine: ‘It seemed unthinkable that something like this could ever happen again. I think art is more important now than ever, purely for survival. That is why I end my Sechs Gesänge with the words: “I wanted to shout but I had no voice”. – I wanted to give that voice back to Eisejuaz.’

This interview was first published in Dutch in Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Sechs Gesänge Beat Furrer will be premiered in Concertgebouw Amsterdam on 6 and 7 May. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Cantando Admont will be conducted by David Robertson.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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